As EU and China celebrate Year of Tourism, access to Tibet for European travellers remains limited

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Security checkpoint in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, 2017. [Photo credit: Carlos Brum Melo]

Could you imagine being denied access to a territory vaster than France, Spain and Portugal combined during your next holiday in Europe? This seems completely unthinkable, yet this is what is happening every year for several weeks in Tibet, write Vincent Metten and Antoine Madelin.

Vincent Metten is the EU policy director at the International Campaign for Tibet. Antoine Madelin is International Advocacy Director at FIDH.

Since a wave of protests swept across the world’s highest and largest plateau from March 10, 2008, to be met by violent suppression, the 1.2 million square kilometres of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) have been closed to foreign tourists every year for at least a month.

This year’s closure started on 10 February and lasted until the beginning of April. And the European Union, which just launched a joint Tourism Year with China, does not seem to be too concerned.

At the opening of the EU-China Summit in July 2016, President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker and Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang announced that 2018 would be the EU-China Tourism Year (ECTY).

China is one of the world’s largest travel markets, both in terms of abroad travel and expenditure, and it seemed only normal that the European Union would seek to engage in initiatives aimed at boosting the flow of Chinese visitors to Europe.

But this decision seems to have been taken in complete disregard of the asymmetry between the EU and China in this domain, highlighted in particular by the issue of access to Tibet.

Outside of the annual closure of Tibet described above, foreign tourists, including EU citizens, indeed still require a number of special authorisations and permits, in addition to their Chinese visa, to visit the TAR.

Access is even more difficult for exiled Tibetans who wish to travel to Tibet to visit their families and friends or to do business. They often face a long and complex application process, as well as strong pressure and even blackmailing from the Chinese consular and diplomatic authorities.

As the European Parliament has noted, these restrictions simply “do not exist for Chinese citizens who are granted visas to travel to EU member states or within the Schengen area”, who enjoy free and open access to the entire territories of the EU member states all year round.

At a time when European leaders are repeatedly urging China for more balance in the trade relationship, this apparent silence regarding the lack of reciprocity in the respect for fundamental rights, including the freedom of movement and the freedom of information of European citizens in China and Tibet, is unsettling.

EU, China bet on tourism to boost trade, ease tensions

At a time of increased tensions between Brussels and Beijing, the two partners met in Venice on Friday (19 January) to launch the EU-China Tourism Year, hoping to patch up or better revitalise relations.

Worse, the European Union seems to have totally overlooked a number of issues relating to the promotion of tourism and the human rights situation in Tibetan areas of China, this in total contravention of its commitment to mainstream human rights and freedoms in all areas of its external policy.

The Chinese government is marketing Tibet as a romantic ‘Shangri La’ destination, using the growing interest in Tibetan Buddhism and culture – both abroad and in mainland China – to attract large numbers of tourists.

At the same time, China is imposing policies in Tibet of unprecedented depth and severity, leading to grave fears for the survival of Tibetan cultural identity.

While Chinese tourists are welcomed to Tibet and to Europe at all times, there are increasing restrictions on Tibetans’ freedom to travel both in Tibet and abroad. The Chinese authorities often deny and recall their passports in total contravention of Chinese law, and even block them from going on pilgrimage to the Dalai Lama’s teachings in India.

Tibetans are also excluded from the planning and development of tourism policies, and Chinese guides trained by the Party-state are prioritised over Tibetans. The increasing presence of international hotel chains in Lhasa and other parts of Tibet – which provides support for Beijing’s propaganda claims of stability and ‘harmony’ in Tibet – raises further concern about the impact of untrammelled tourism on the Tibetan plateau’s fragile landscape.

As the number of self-immolations in Tibet since 2009 has now reached 153, indicating the Tibetan people’s continued anguish at Chinese oppression, it is time for the European Union and its member states to take stock and find ways to rebalance their relationship, based on the fundamental values of the EU (the respect for democracy and human rights) rather than on the authoritarian principles of the Chinese regime.

In the US, members of Congress have introduced bipartisan, bicameral legislation, the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act, to promote an open and accessible Tibet both for American citizens and for Tibetans themselves, including the Dalai Lama.

The EU could follow this initiative and extend the notion of reciprocity – which is largely promoted by the EU in the areas of trade and economic relations – to the respect for fundamental rights, including freedom of movement and access to Tibet.

If such principles were applied, the 2018 EU-China Tourism Year could even represent an opportunity for Tibet – an opportunity to push for the engagement of Tibetans in tourism, and free access at all times for European tourists to this remarkable high plateau landscape, the Roof of the World.

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